Housing, Racial Segregation, and Opportunity

The city and neighborhood you live in have real consequences for your quality of life and your chances of educational and economic success. Race Forward’s Jay Smooth summarized the importance of place in a recent video series on systemic racism, explaining “where you live can help decide what food you eat, what sort of jobs you can get, how safe you are, what sort of healthcare you can get, and the quality of your children’s education.” That may seem obvious, but what’s less obvious to many people is how those dramatic disparities in outcomes by city and neighborhood came to be. We said recently that it’s no accident that communities of color, and particularly black communities, are often the ones lacking opportunity; governmental policies and market practices, supported by discrimination and individual bias, have created those conditions over time.

Last week, Richard Rothstein gave Fresh Air an overview of racist real estate and urban development practices and public policies that created segregation in American cities, including:

  • the Public Works Administration built segregated public housing in previously integrated neighborhoods
  • the Federal Housing Administration guaranteed loans for mass production builders of new subdivisions as long as they didn’t sell homes to African-Americans
  • state licensing boards allowed real estate agents and speculators to frighten white families (by convincing them that their neighborhood was becoming a black slum) into selling their homes for below market-value. These homes were resold to black families, who had access to a restricted housing supply, for much more than they were worth.

Jamelle Bouie explains how the Federal Housing Authority used a racial hierarchy to determine the riskiness of home loans in certain neighborhoods—on their color coded maps, black neighborhoods were red, indicating the highest level of risk. This process of “redlining” meant “loans were either expensive or nonexistent, forcing families to rely on speculators and private sales by unscrupulous homeowners.” Bouie sums up the interaction between institutional and individual bias that enables segregation and the devaluing of black neighborhoods:

These institutions, private and public, didn’t cause racism in housing markets, but they gave it official sanction, which—over time—influenced how individuals understood the value of their homes and neighborhoods. A white neighborhood was a good one; a black neighborhood, a bad one.

We may want to believe that these disturbing policies are a thing of the past, but perceptions of race and class still permeate individual and institutional decisions about who can and should live where. Regardless of economic class, all-white neighborhoods were seen by white people as more desirable. As Brentin Mock explained last week for CityLab, this association that people make between the whiteness of a neighborhood and its safety and value drives continued segregation—and the continued depression of some neighborhoods.

This residential segregation persists in many rural and metro areas, especially in the South, the region of the country with both high levels of diversity and the most recent history of legal segregation. FiveThirtyEight developed an integration-segregation index that takes into account a city’s overall level of diversity as well as its neighborhood level diversity, finding that “cities with substantial black populations tend to be highly segregated.” Of the 100 most populated US cities (they’re looking at metro data next), ten Southern cities—Atlanta, Baton Rouge, New Orleans, Memphis, Miami, Dallas, Birmingham, St. Petersburg, Houston, and Louisville—are in the top 25 most segregated cities. Only five Southern cities, Virginia Beach plus Irving, Arlington, Plano, and Garland TX, are in the 25 least segregated cities. (Check out the Institute for Southern Studies coverage for more).

Segregated neighborhoods mean people have access to systems of opportunity with different levels of quality and different likelihoods of educational and economic success. In many of the South’s sprawling metros, low-income people don’t live near good jobs and they don’t have access to robust public transportation. Preparation for many of those far-away good jobs requires a good education, but according to a recent Urban Institute study, many of the South’s low-income students are concentrated in high-poverty schools that aren’t well-resourced. In Mecklenburg County (Charlotte), NC, one of the places with the lowest economic mobility in the nation, 49 percent of black children are in high-poverty schools, compared to only 6 percent of white children.

UI map

Source: Urban Institute

Continued residential segregation and the economic inequality that segregation exacerbates aren’t just a problem for people of color—although it unquestionably impacts them the most. PolicyLink’s Equity Atlas projects that the South’s economy would be $915 billion larger, an almost 20 percent increase, if there were no racial gaps in income. And as we learned from the most recent Equality of Opportunity Project study, communities that have better outcomes for low-income young people also have better outcomes for high-income young people. As Southerners seek to build a stronger infrastructure of opportunity, one which has reliable options for all young people, regardless of race, class, or neighborhood, we have to dismantle these systems of economic exploitation and stratification, which have relied on racism to justify their continuation for far too long.